by Richard Cowan and Richard LaFountain
In the fall of 1977 Karen and Amel Massa of Babylon, Long Island purchased Wildfowler Decoys from Charlie Birdsall. Amel had a degree in industrial engineering and Karen had business training, but neither of them had any experience carving decoys. Amel rented an apartment in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, and from October through January he worked with Birdsall at that location. Charlie was generous with his time and Amel quickly learned the business from top to bottom. Their agreement allowed six months for the transition, but after just four months Amel was ready to continue on his own.
In February all of the patterns, carving machines and other equipment was moved into a former boatshed at the Watts and DeGamo Boatyard on Fire Island Avenue in Babylon. The mailing address was 3 Shore Road, but the factory was located near the water at the boatyard. A wood stove and free standing kerosene heaters provided warmth, and little time was lost getting Wildfowler into production again.
Nearly a year later the factory was flooded during the Lindsay Storm, a severe coastal storm that hit the New York City area. Fortunately, nothing was lost, as the staff worked frantically to raise all the machines up on blocks in anticipation of the storm. Subsequently, the entire operation was moved to 56 Park Avenue where a house was used as the office and a large workshop was available.
By the mid-1970s plastic decoys had become the preferred bird of most gunners. A dozen plastic decoys cost less than $50, whereas the cost of a dozen cork or wooden birds could exceed $250. The 1977 Wildfowler catalog still listed traditional hunting decoys in balsa or hollow pine, costing from $16.50 for a balsa mallard to $29.95 for a hollow pine goose. You could also purchase "Do it yourself" kits for $11.95 to $15.95, but in reality the business had begun to shift heavily toward decorative waterfowl items. Unlike the earlier locations, Wildfowler Babylon did not do special orders or private runs or become a social center for local hunters and baymen.
The newer brochures were changed to a broadside one page format with all birds shown in full color with acrylic finishes. One broadside showed a complete line of unfinished birds, but these were clearly not gunning birds. Amel recalls that they purchased one large order of balsa wood soon after opening in Babylon. The wood was delivered in billet sizes ready for the lathes. There was enough wood to produce about 3000 gunning birds. When the business was sold in 1985, some of the wood was still unused and went to the new owner’s location in Bohemia. We must conclude that the total Babylon production of hunting decoys was less than 3000 because only a few hollow pine hunting decoys were produced during these years. Anne Madsen and Ina Hickey, who were full time employees, painted the gunning birds.
In the early 1980s, Wildfowler began to produce a new line called "Classic Collector Series." This is not to be confused with the antique style birds shown on a separate brochure that continued some of the styles originated in Point Pleasant. Ward, Cranmer, Shourds and Mitchell inspired decoys are evident in this grouping. The Classic Collector Series was a new venture, with Bill Joeckel of Islip Terrace, Long Island serving as a consultant and the originator of some of the birds in this series. His red-breasted merganser was a popular item on Long Island. Another local carver, Fred Muhs of Hampton Bay, contributed a goose design.
By 1980 the production at Wildfowler was almost completely decorative. An owl, a gull, some shorebirds and bookends were also advertised. Unfinished duck carvings had become a large part of the business and could be purchased in small, medium and large sizes. Finished birds were available in half and full sizes. The half-size, or medium, mallard was the most popular item in the entire line. At the suggestion of an employee some of the decorative items were shown with a textured finish. By 1980 these textured birds had completely replaced the non-textured decorative carvings except for the two antique lines.
The two master painters, Madsen and Hickey, made most of the "pattern" birds. About 35 cottage painters, mostly local homemakers, did the actual painting. These part-timers were self-employed and came to the shop to audition for the master painters. Wildfowler purchased the art supplies in wholesale quantities and sold the required amount to the home painters. Each person took as many unprimed birds as they thought they could complete in a week and then returned the next week to repeat the process. They were paid on a piecework basis and each painter determined for herself how many pieces was a week’s production. Typically these painters signed the bottom of the bird in addition to the Wildfowler stamp.
Six full-time and two part-time employees did the carving, sanding, assembling, priming, finishing and shipping at the shop. A 1983 article in National Geographic magazine shows Joe Felton operating a 12-spindle Parton carving lathe. Such a machine could produce 12 large heads, such as a goose, or 24 regular heads at one time. A fairly comprehensive inventory was maintained. George Rigby, a former employee, recalls Amel asking him to check stock on a daily basis to maintain this inventory. A limited number of primed and sealed items were always on hand because finished painting was done as orders were received. Over the years Felton, Rigby, Bill Harrison, Joe DeLuca, Al Dailey, Hickey, Madsen and Joe Kunz were on the payroll. Interestingly, Kunz was a military veteran confined to a wheelchair, and his was an early instance of employing the handicapped.
Western white pine and sugar pine planks were received in large sizes – four by twelve’s in 24-foot lengths were not unusual. At first it was obtained from wholesale suppliers, such as the Macilvane Company of Philadelphia, but later it was purchased in railroad car lots directly from the mill in Oregon. There was little waste. Small scraps and rippings were glued-up. The variety of product sizes allowed for many different items to be traced on board edges and smaller scraps. The sawdust went to a horse stable in North Babylon and the small scraps were packaged and sold in craft stores locally.
Good quality eyes were purchased from the Penn Taxidermist Supply at $14 per gross. They were received clear and painted at the shop. Tuff Carve or Bondo were used to set the eyes and putty the birds. Any items for the carving machine had to be cut into uniformed sizes on the bandsaw, usually in 12 to 16-onch lengths. As in the past, 12 regular or 6 oversized bodies could be carved at one time. A typical run was generally about 100 of any given species. Carving began at the lower end of the billet and proceeded upwards and around the carving until completion. Heads were carved in pairs, drawn with the bills overlapping. Finishing involved bandsawing away the "handles," where the wood was attached to the spindles, as well as sanding, assembling, woodfilling, eye placement and painting.
Amel worked on all phases of production. And he and Karen frequently worked into the evening - packing, shipping, keeping books and designing new products, such as the painting patterns and paint kits required to accompany the craft oriented items.
A major portion of their production went to large outlets and department stores throughout the country. These included Flower Time (which became Franks), Burdines, Bullocks and Macys. Taking a page from their predecessor, Charlie Birdsall, and expanding on it, the Massa showcased their products at the Gift Trade Distributin Center at 225 Fifth Avenue in New York City. This proved so successful that they attended other trade shows in Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles. Amel can still recall entering the exhibition centers with a shopping bag of birds, and after visiting the exhibits of several upscale stores, returning home with extensive orders.
The association that Charlie Birdsall had developed with the Lane Furniture Company ended in mid 1978 because of the increased overhead. Lane was located near Point Pleasant, which allowed Birdsall to make the deliveries himself. Initially the Massas continued to deliver the completed orders by station wagon to New Jersey. But before long they decided it would be more cost effective to deal directly with the Trade Distribution Center and the larger outlets. About six months after the move to Babylon, their relationship ended.
Decoy making had become a "gift" business under Birdsall and the Massas expanded greatly into this new market. The demand for decorative carvings was high and there was little competition at the time from importers. So Wildfowler produced some carvings with a "private label," with the furniture giant, Ethan Allen, likely the most well known. The acquisition of this account was serendipitous. The Park Avenue location backed onto the Montauk branch of the Long Island Railroad and the Massa painted a large Wildfowler sign on the back of the building. An executive for Ethan Allen spied the sign from the train and called the office. Before long Ethan Allen had become a major account with its own label.
As more business was done with craft outlets, the Massas experimented with new items. Lead feet were poured at the factory for standing gulls. Many half-sized birds were made and bookends returned to the line. A wider offering of both painted and unpainted shorebirds was produced. A screech owl and the head of a golden retriever became popular items. They experimented with a "cheese and quackers" cutting board, but it had limited success. Prototypes for cigar store Indian and small whales were developed but not produced. Clearly the decoy factory of Ted Mulliken’s day was a thing of the past.
Unlike Quogue and Point Pleasant, Wildfowler Babylon did not operate a retail store. They did do some craft and decoy shows, such as the Long Island Decoy Collectors Show, but the majority of the business was wholesale. A few finished items were kept on the shelves in the office for retail sales, as local residents would stop by, particularly at Christmas time, to make purchases.
Amel was active for a number of years in the Long Island Decoy Collectors Association. He served two years as president and hosted meetings at the factory so members could see the operation firsthand. Karen’s father, Judge Ken Rohl, was a silent partner in the business and enjoyed being an active participant on occasion. Ken was also an active member of the LIDCA and a decoy historian, well known for his knowledge of John Lee Baldwin, an eccentric carver from Babylon.
After eight successful years of operation, the Massas sold the Wildfowler business to Louis Siciliano in 1985, who continued to operate the business in Babylon for two years before moving it to Bohemia, Long Island. The next part of this series will discuss the Bohemia location and the end of the proud Wildfowler legacy.
Thanks to Joe Buttonow, Amel Massa, Jamie Reason, Fred Reaver, George Rigby and Karen Rohl for information provided for this story.
For the complete story, please see the July/Aug. 2001 issue of Decoy Magazine.
Read Part One | Read Part Two | Read Part Three | Read Part Four | Read Part Five
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